The Southern vestibule is a deep, once marble-paneled entry-hall, 13.79 m. long, which lies on the axis of the narthex and immediately to the south of it. The worshipper entered through bronze portals into the Vestibule and traversing it he passed other bronze doors in the narthex. He saw the mosaic situated above this second doorway, where the subject is still illuminated by strong light admitted through a large window in the south wall, directly opposite to it. The result is that now, as then, the mosaic, recessed beneath a semicircular arch, 1.83 m. deep, is well lit, and is clearly seen from the payment 6.45 m. below, nor is the spectator much troubled by the presence of two monstrous plaster cornices of modern make, which run along the side of the wall of the Vestibule and impinge upon the work itself.
The interior surface of the arch which crowns the panel to be described is itself, as are the vaults and higher surfaces of the walls, covered with colored mosaic decoration in geometric patterns with minute repeating figures. The presence of a sacred representation at this spot was known from its mention in a document of the twelfth century. The image was described there very briefly. It is not known when the mosaic was first concealed after the Muslim conquest of the City. The Fosatti restoration of 1847 exposed the mosaic and even made repairs to it, before reconciling it under a new layer of plaster and painted ornament. Finally, the plaster was removed by conservators and craftsmen of the Byzantine Institute of America - and the underlying work for revealed to the public in June 1935.
The Vestibule Mosaic
The mosaic is a Hymn of Laudation to the Mother of God; an Akathistos in color and light distinguished alike by its delicacy and vividness.
The mosaic fills more than half a circle, its width at the highest pint of the plaster cornice is 4.9 m; its greatest height is 3 m.
The subject presents a group of two Emperors on either side of the Virgin enthroned with the Infant Savior. The figures are inscribed with their name and titles. In the center the Virgin with her appellation of Mother of God. To our right, Constantine the Great as a saint; to our left, Justinian the First; both emperors are nimbate with halos. The Virgin holds the Infant in her lap. Constantine carries the City that bares his name. Justinian supports in his hands the Church of St. Sophia. The green ground beneath the figures is presented in four horizontal layers which grow darker as they recede. The background is bright gold mosaic which vibrates with every pulse of light and creating an air of celestial brilliance around the amethyst-blue figures. The mosaic is ragged along its edges; originally it was surrounded by a border of red tessellate, of which parts remain; at the base of the picture no less than eleven rows are missing.
The Mother of God
The Virgin, here presented as the Mother of God, is shown seated, facing the onlooker, holding on her knees the Child Jesus, also facing the onlooker. She holds in her hand a silk kerchief. The oval features of the Virgin, which are lit from high up on our left, are purely formal. The flesh is delicate, rose-shell in tint with green shadows; the eyes are same deep blue of her robes, the nose is long and straight; the mouth, which shows Fossati repair in plaster, is small and regular. The expression is remote and impassive, and betrays no emotion. The harmonious glance including the symmetry of the garment around the ears is classical. The upper part of the Virgin's body is wrapped in a maphorion. She is seated on its edge. The maphorion and stole are executed in the manner of the vestments of Emperors, which were silk.
The maphorion covers the head, forming a hood, and falls over the shoulders and great in short folds. The lose-fitting cap worn by the Virgin is of the finest silk with a delicately woven border. Gold ornaments, the segmenta, one in the center of the hood and one on each of her shoulders, adorn the maphorion: that are formed of four squares. The type of the segmenta is an early one, towards the year 1000 AD it was replaced by the segmenta of another type, having the shape of the cross or stars. The stole or the long garment the Virgin wears under the maphorion is of the same stuff, a lustrous silk of heavy woven thread. Beneath the stole we catch a glimpse of the slippers of soft gilded leather with an oval inset of read leather.
The Child is represented seated on the knees of the Virgin. He is blessing with the right hand in the manner of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the tip of the third finger touching the thumb. In the left hand he holds a scroll. The head of the Child is set full-face. It is oval with an unusually high and prominent forehead. The left brow is higher than the right. The eyes are almond shaped and are turned towards the left. The large dark reddish-brown pupils give depth to the expression. The nose is small and straight. The cheeks are full. The mouth breaks gently into a smile. The general impression is that of a face filled with thoughtful alertness and radiance and the whole figure seems ablaze with light. At the same time we are aware that the artist in his characteristic Byzantine pre-occupation to endow the Child with the miraculous attributes has assigned to the body of an infant the head of an adolescent.
Around the head of the Child is a cruciform nimbus. There is some Fossati restoration in it. The hand of the child is unduly large when compared with the other limbs of the body. The artist has done this to emphasize the benediction. The bare right foot is large in comparison with the body of the Child. The left foot is less visible and was partially destroyed by a bad Fosatti restoration which is very distracting since the foot is missing toes.
The Child is clothed in a gold chiton and gold himation. The treatment of the colors in both garments indicate that they are of the same make and are woven with metallic wefts. They have the same lustrous quality and silver highlights of such a fabric. It is noticeable that to produce this effect the cubes are set flat and not at an angle.
The throne is represented in inverted perspective and is illuminated on the left. The throne produces the effect of being an autonomous generating source of light, not a mere reflecting object; the light seems to emanate from the body of the mosaic itself, and the throne appears all luminous within. It is very different from the one over the entrance in the Narthex; there the throne is a piece of place furniture, here it is an altar of light. The Virgin is seated on a cushion and her feet rest on a footstool.
Both Emperors are represented somewhat nearer to the beholder than the central figures, their feet being approximately in the line of the front of the footstool. They stand symmetrically and resemble each other, not only in the attitude of their bodies, but in their vestments and in their features. Yet, although they show the same facial type, they are not identical. The Emperors differ physically. The illuminated, ethereal figure of Constantine is in contrast with the more materialized figure of Justinian. The hair of Constantine is in the style that was usual in the representation of the Emperors in the early Byzantine epoch. Justinian is shown older than Constantine, his gaunt features are harder and headier. He looks rather into space than towards the Virgin and Child.
While the face of Constantine has a touch of sadness, Justinian does not share this. There is nothing in common between this wrinkled, conventionalized face and the historical portraits of Justinian in Ravenna and elsewhere.
The Emperors are full-robed in a long and rather closely fitting tunic of chiton reaching almost to the ankles. The chiton is blue, of the same shade and weave as the Virgin's tones; its front part is ornamented with two claves - broad vertical gold bands. Over the chiton the Emperors wear the divitission, which is of the same color as the chiton. The light spots on the garments here and on the other two figures are due to repairs by the Fosasati and conservators of the 1930's. In executing these repairs Fossati used tessellae taken from other parts of the mosaic.
The most sumptuous part of the imperial vestments its the loros, a long, wide band of gold cloth that wrapped the whole bodies of the Emperors. They are represented as made of a gorgeous heavy stiff brocade woven with metal threads of gold and silver, and they are embroidered with a pattern in green. These loroi on the mosaic are destitute of the precious stones and pearls that usually adorn this vestment of the Basileus. The form and ornamentation of the crowns are characteristic of the tenth and eleventh centuries. They are crowned with the imperial stemma, a gold circlet covered with enamel seeming to represent golden sard surrounded surmounted by a triple ornament composed of a cross of pearls flanked by a grape-shaped pearl set on a peg on each side. Pendants called prependulia hang from both sides, each consisting of three large pear shaped pearls - the Roman clenchi. In the center of each circlet in is a large cabochon emerald framed in a horseshoe setting. The shoes of the Emperors are of soft golden leather with seams of imperial red, and they are tied at the back of the ankle with a bow of similar color.
The figure of the Virgin is accompanied by the usual monograms meaning Mother of God. The inscription by Constantine reads - Constantine, the great Emperor amongst the saints. That of Justinian reads - Justinian Emperor of illustrious memory.
This text is taken and edited from The Mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul, Second Preliminary Report Work Done in 1933 and 1934 by Thomas Whittemore, which was published in 1936.